Hardly a day passes anymore in South Korea without a violent confrontation between students and police. Yesterday, 176 university students set on fire an office of the ruling Democratic Justice Party before being overpowered by hundreds of riot police. They had occupied the building for six hours.
Last Wednesday, three students in the southern port of Pusan occupied offices of the Bank of America to protest US trade pressure on Korea. Elsewhere in the city, students tried to occupy offices of the ruling party. In the city of Kwangju, some 20 students hurled gasoline bombs at a local office of the Ministry of Labor and demanded better conditions for Korean workers. And in Seoul, hundreds of students from Korea University attacked police with Molotov cocktails and set fire to a police bus.
The daily escalation of violence seems to confirm what many observers have warned about for months. A broad crackdown on the opposition by President Chun Doo Hwan's government, which began in June, is polarizing political opinion in South Korea and radicalizing students. At the same time, efforts to bring about more moderate political change through the National Assembly (parliament) have floundered.
Student opinion has also grown increasingly anti-American, a trend dramatized recently when 14 students occupied the American Chamber of Commerce for several hours in downtown Seoul, holding three Korean employees captive and threatening to burn the offices. Students blame the United States for its support of President Chun, whom they call a military dictator, and they object to US trade pressure on South Korea.
The government sees the situation differently. Diplomats say that senior political aides of Chun believe they are battling a student movement led by hard-core communist revolutionaries, and that only ruthless suppression will root them out.
``You don't understand the forces of destruction at work,'' one presidential adviser told a diplomat.
Diplomats do agree that the students are at least partly to blame. ``The students were the ones who started using Molotov cocktails last spring,'' says one.
At least 300 students are now in jail, many charged with trying to overthrow the government, and are awaiting trial under the harsh national security laws that allow for a maximum penalty of death.
After a hiatus of several years, reports of torture in Korean jails have resurfaced. The Korean government has vigorously denied the reports, but US diplomats found the charges credible enough to express ``serious concern'' to the Chun government in two cases.
In one, agents of the National Security Planning Agency, formerly the Korean CIA, allegedly beat three journalists of the Dong-A Ilbo, an outspoken daily newspaper. The journalists were ostensibly being questioned because their paper ran an article one day ahead of the government's official anouncement that a defecting Chinese pilot would be allowed to travel to Taiwan. But many interpreted the move as an attempt to intimidate the paper.
In a second case, student activist Kim Kun Tae was allegedly tortured for 10 days and was not allowed to sleep for 20 days in order to extract a confession that he was communist. Mr. Kim's wife saw him in an accidental meeting at the Seoul prosecutor's office, where, she said, her husband was sprawled on the floor in pain and unable to stand. The prosecutor's office claims that Kim was feigning injury. The court refused a request from his lawyers that he be examined for signs of torture.
Regardless of the truth of the allegations, the charges of torture have led to further deterioration of an already tense political atmosphere. Dissidents and opposition assemblymen have formed a committee and appealed to the United Nations to help investigate the charges.
In the National Assembly, proceedings came to a grinding halt last month, when the opposition New Korea Democratic Party stormed out of the assembly to protest a vote for the assembly's vice-speaker.
The dispute over apparently procedural matters brought the assembly perilously close to complete collapse. This fall's session was stormy at best, with proceedings occasionally breaking down into shouting matches across the assembly floor. But the parties managed to keep the assembly alive as a forum for political debate, both sides apparently recognizing the dangers of pushing political conflict out on to the streets.
Rather than elect the opposition party's formal candidate for the vice-speakership, as custom held, the ruling party voted in a former nominee who had since had a dispute with his faction leader, dissident Kim Dae Jung. The vote was a slap in the face for Kim, who is still legally barred from politics in Korea. But the ruling party's clumsy attempt to meddle in opposition factional affairs incensed the main factions of the opposition.
After a week of apologies from the ruling party, the assembly finally got back on track. But the affair has brought out critical weaknesses in the opposition.
So far, the opposition has proved utterly incapable of overcoming factional divisions within the party and unable to impose discipline on its members, resulting in a severe loss of credibility.